By Brian Hoffman – Sports Editor
Murray Cook built it, and they came.
Cook, who started shining shoes in the Salem Pirates clubhouse and worked his way into being one of the top turf experts in the world, was the main architect of the “Field of Dreams” for the August 12 game between the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox. His Brightview Sports Turf company had the task of turning a cornfield into a baseball diamond and all the reviews were “rave” following the wildly successful Major League game.
“I got so many calls from all over the world,” said Cook, who worked on the project for over five years. “I got some messages in Japanese. One thing I’ll say is, I learned a lot more about corn than I really wanted to know.”
The project began with an idea by the late Denise Stillman, who owned the property where the movie “Field of Dreams” was filmed. If you’re one of the few who have not seen it, the 1989 release starring Kevin Costner was about a man who lived on a farm in Iowa and reconnected with his father in a tall tale revolving around baseball. At the climax his dad, along with the 1919 Chicago White Sox, come out of the cornfield to play a ballgame. It was a very successful movie and the phrase, “If you build it, they will come,” was coined in the making of the film.
Unfortunately, Stillman died of cancer before her idea came to fruition, but she would have enjoyed seeing how successful the project was. The current White Sox, wearing 1919 period uniforms, won an exciting game over the Yankees, 9-8, on a walk-off home run in a nationally televised game.
“It was the most watched regular season baseball game in 16 years,” noted Cook, who watched the game from a gate just past the first base dugout. “You couldn’t have asked for a better game. Literally, the baseball gods shined down on us. We had three days of rain prior to the game but it was a beautiful night and a great game to watch.”
The field in the movie was not suitable for a big league game, so Cook and his company plotted a spot nearby to construct a big league ballpark. It wasn’t the first rodeo for Murray, who has constructed fields for the Olympics, for a game at Fort Bragg and numerous other locations around the world. He’s the official turf consultant for Major League Baseball’s fields and stadiums with 35 years of experience. If you want a baseball field built, you call Murray.
The site evaluation began in 2015 but actual construction of the field began in August of 2019. The first order of business was clearing off the corn.
“Getting rid of the corn was easy, you just sit on the tractor and pull it out,” said Cook. “The hard part was moving 30,000 cubic yards of soil.”
Once the field started taking shape an entire ballpark had to be built. Murray and his workers oversaw the whole deal, from the locker rooms to the bleachers for a crowd of 8,000 fans. An alfalfa field across the street was mowed down and a parking lot was marked that could hold 3,000 cars. Only Iowa people could buy tickets to the first big league game held in the state, and you had to show proof.
The field is located in Dyersville, an Iowa town of just over 4,000 residents that has become quite a tourist destination for people who loved the movie. You can actually rent the house where Costner’s movie family lived, and have a game of catch on the field. Fans come from all over to marvel at the site.
“The best part of the whole thing was watching the faces of people when they entered the field,” said Cook. “Players were snapping pictures and running through the corn. Both teams took team pictures in the outfield and ran through the corn maze.”
The corn maze was constructed between the original and new ballfields. The Major League Baseball logo was incorporated into the maze.
“There’s a company that does that,” said Cook. “It only took them about three hours to do.”
The event was so successful there’s talk of holding more games there, maybe one a year. For now, however, everything comes down.
“Everything outside the field is temporary,” said Cook. “We’ll continue to maintain the field itself.”
Murray had little time to rest, as his next project was the game between the Angels and Indians on August 22 at the home of Little League Baseball in Williamsport, Pa. That game was played in conjunction with the Little League World Series. The big league teams played at Bowman Stadium, a 2,500-seat ballpark that Cook maintains.
Now 61, Cook and his wife have three grown children, a 14-year-old and a grandson. Ironically, his daughter Kate married a guy from Iowa.
In his years since serving as a teenage groundskeeper at Salem Municipal Stadium, which is now Billy Sample Field at Kiwanis Park, Cook has rubbed elbows with some of the greats of the game as well as national and international celebrities. He enjoyed talking to Costner in Iowa as the movie star returned to the site of the baseball movie to watch the game last week.
“He just looked around in amazement and said, ‘Is this real?’” noted Cook.
Yes, it was, Kevin, thanks to Murray and his crew. He built it, and they came for one of the most memorable baseball games ever.